Kimberling Lutheran Cemetery and Church, Rural Retreat Virginia

Date added: October 13, 2023 Categories: Virginia Church Cemetery
Exterior view of church from southeast (1977)

Situated on a steep hillside looking out over the rolling countryside of western Wythe County, is Kimberling Lutheran Cemetery, one of the oldest graveyards in the county. It contains an outstanding collection of traditional German gravestones of the period 1800-1850. It is one of a small number of such collections in Southwest Virginia. Its stones, with their combination of traditional and contemporary (19th-century) decorative devices, seen in their unspoiled pastoral setting present a striking image of German life and culture in rural Wythe County in the last century.

A few Germans settled in Wythe County in the middle of the 18th century, but it was not until after the Revolution that German settlement there was firmly established. The church at Kimberling or Kimmerling's as it was sometimes called, was one of the earliest Lutheran churches in the area. Its first building was dedicated in 1797, and the earliest legible stone in the cemetery was erected three years later. This building was repaired and rededicated in 1834, and another was erected to replace it in 1854. The present church dates from 1913.

In its early years, Kimberling shared its pastors with other Lutheran Churches in the area. George D. Flohr, also the pastor at St. John's Church in Wytheville, the site of another of Wythe County's German cemeteries, served from 1799 until his death in 1826.

The cemetery at Kimberling reflects the changes occurring among the German groups in Virginia during the first half of the 19th century. Despite their reputation for aloofness from the English-speaking community, the Germans were in fact assimilated to many aspects of Anglo-American culture by the beginning of the 19th century. The stones in the Kimberling churchyard reflect this in their almost-exclusive use of the English language for inscriptions and in their shapes which are influenced by early and mid-19th-century design concepts (as are their lettering styles). In contrast to worldly concepts of form, they retain traditional German motifs in their symbolic (religious) content. Hearts, sinuous vegetation, stars, and pinwheels of every sort were all parts of the Continental vocabulary of religious symbolism which the Kimberling carver continued to use throughout the first half of the century. As the decades passed, however, the use of these traditional motifs grew weaker, and the last stone to employ them is dated 1850, just four years before the church replaced its original building with a new one. From 1850 onward gravestones at Kimberling were indistinguishable from those of any other Virginia denomination.

Site Description

Situated on a steep, cleared hillside overlooking the rolling terrain of Wythe County, Kimberling Lutheran Cemetery is one of a small group of cemeteries in Southwest Virginia containing a significant collection of early Germanic gravestones. There are about fifty such sandstone monuments dating from 1800 to 1850 in the cemetery, which has continued in active use until the present. Owing to the nature of the material and the exposed position of the cemetery, few of the stones bear legible inscriptions. They range in size from about 18 inches to about 3 feet tall and from about 3 to about 6 inches thick. There are several basic shapes. Some stones have a semi-circular central tympanum with slight, square shoulders, others have smaller tympani with prominent rounded shoulders, and a few have a central portion that is almost circular. Unlike English gravestones of the same period, German stones are often decorated both on the obverse and reverse; in fact, the principal decoration on most of the Kimberling stones is on the reverse. This embellishment normally consists of a single, high-relief motif framed by a double band. Designs at Kimberling include hearts, upside-down anchors, fylfot crosses, six-pointed stars, ladder-like devices, and a variety of vegetal forms. Enrichment of the front of the stone usually consists of no more than the inscription lettered onto a rectangular recessed panel; occasionally there will be a simple design carved in the tympanum. German inscriptions are rare at Kimberling. Even the earliest stones bear English legends with an occasional word or two of German. Elizabeth Snavely's monument, for instance, relates in English that she died in 1807 and concludes "P S EHE FRAU."

The present church building at Kimberling the third on the site, is a large frame structure with two unequal-sized towers, vestigial transepts and chancel, and pedimented "Gothic" window and door openings, as well as decorative pressed-tin shingles on its tower roof. It was erected in 1913.

Kimberling Lutheran Cemetery and Church, Rural Retreat Virginia Exterior view of church from southeast (1977)
Exterior view of church from southeast (1977)

Kimberling Lutheran Cemetery and Church, Rural Retreat Virginia Elizabeth Snavely Gravestone (1977)
Elizabeth Snavely Gravestone (1977)

Kimberling Lutheran Cemetery and Church, Rural Retreat Virginia View of gravestone (1977)
View of gravestone (1977)